Tarfia Faizullah’s new collection of poems, Registers of Illuminated Villages, engages with issues of grief, trauma, ancestry, and joy in a voice that is always attentive and intensely lyric. Faizullah untangles matters of societal and ancestral influence; she catalogs the ways we hurt and affirm each other; and she answers each question with the utmost lyricism, as if song itself is the suitable answer to hard-to-answer questions.
Registers of Illuminated Villages continues work begun in Faizullah’s first collection, Seam, in that both books dig into an existential tension presented by large-scale global injustice. Is it possible to fully acknowledge the pains of this world – to listen to grieving voices – and not be irrevocably torn by them? What does it mean to desire a life in this world, knowing the dangerous and terrible ways human life has enacted change in this world?
In Registers of Illuminated Villages, Faizullah never allows her speakers to ignore uncomfortable realities, yet neither does she allow those realities to overwhelm her speakers in unproductive ways. Faced with violences that are large and small, systemic and personal, Faizullah creates room for acknowledgement and ultimately returns to the world around her, changed but not destroyed. We are asked once “to accept that the lesson learned / from a plane barreling into a pentagon // is that fire will always only ever / come close to ravishing stone.” Perhaps the poet herself is preserved by her ability to convert both tragedy and ecstasy into lyricism and song. In the face of the unexplainable, she “learns the nature of light / by revising the dark into song with every / register of her seven tongues.”
As a book about trauma and loss – although this collection is about much more than just trauma and loss – Registers of Illuminated Villages suggests that the grief’s strength comes from the attention and particularity with which we grieve. The book suggests that a specific and accurate recognition of pain and loss does something to create a productive space for that pain. In every instance, whether confronting traumas on a personal or global level, words pass through the speaker’s lips with an amazing clarity and vision.
We are told of a lost child, for example, that “exactly seven yellow poppies grew / from the mouth of her corpse.” The child’s friends, too, are praised for “how precisely they lamented her.” In the collection’s first poem we are asked, “who counts dolls, hand- / stitched, facedown in dirt?” and “who will count the amputated hands of thieves?” Through these questions, the reader gets the sense that such a counting might constitute a life attentively and compassionately lived. Isn’t it, after all, recognition that loss and pain demand?
In a poem about the slaughter and preparation of a goat, we are told “It is / important // to observe / death,” and such an imperative rings true in a world where death and injustice easily become faraway abstractions – images sandwiched between shoe advertisements and cat memes. The lesson about grief is that it demands our attention and that acknowledgement is a form of affirmation, if not love.
What’s more, this belief in attention as a source of affirmation extends beyond the localities of grief and trauma. The speaker approaches the world of these poems with receptivity and open eyes, looking closely at every true thing. The sky of these poems is “famished with stars” and the speaker can’t “help but count each scorched one.” We see her “pry open phonebooks and recite the names of strangers,” and as strongly as we feel moved to grief through the acknowledgement of loss, we are moved to joy and awe through the acknowledgement of life. Even so, we never escape grief entirely. Rather, the attentive stance brings us to a full-to-bursting awareness of a world that is bustling with life and death and beauty and tragedy. In “Because There’s Still A Sky, Junebug,” the speaker accounts
tonight, a drone
in Yemen detonates and rends the sky,
and in my father’s garden,
drone is a stingless bee unable
to make honey,
detailing the ways in which memory and daydream and grief mix inextricably in a single moment of existence. The ending of the poem reads,
there is still a head-scarfed girl
who sucks the sugar
from a ginger candy
before she explodes – I look up,
and above the sky still flints with so many stars. Above me.
It might seem tempting for some readers to interpret the “looking up” at the end of this poem as a way of avoiding the unpleasant sadnesses and griefs brought on by war, but there are no such avoidances in Registers of Illuminated Villages. This book oscillates constantly between the world that is here and the world that has been destroyed, never ignoring any bit of reality – no matter how inconstant or unpleasant.
The poems in Registers of Illuminated Villages also take a scrutinizing look at desire, forcing readers to acknowledge the ways in which our hungers, sighs, dreams, and pursuits change the world around us. We are asked to consider “why the ocean inside the drunkard never sleeps” and what that insomnia might mean. At separate points in Registers of Illuminated Villages, desire is both the force of destruction and a way of returning to the immediate realities of the world. Contrastingly, readers are shown the ways in which complex and sometimes-twisted longings motivate instances of invasion, violation, sacrifice, and love.
In “Djinn In Need of A Bitch,” for example, a spirit’s refrain becomes “I need, I need”; and although a woman is the centerpiece of this particular need, the poem depicts a hunger that could consume nations of women. Interestingly, this hunger is not uniquely isolated to one gender, class, race, or ethnicity. In fact, in “Djinn In Need of A Bitch” the speaker commiserates with her assailant, saying, “I know it’s not me he wants, but / the night is a varnished peeling wall // against which I, too, want again to be / roughly pressed.” One of this book’s tasks is to unwrap the possibility that a desire for destruction constitutes the center of us. Who among us, after all, has not been stunned by “the defiance of forest fires?”
More than merely indulging perverse fascinations, however, Registers of Illuminated Villages asks us to engage more deeply with our desires. That we need is undeniable, but isn’t it possible to use that need to create instead of destroy? As one speaker asks, “do we ever learn / that we’re given weapons / to be vicious so we can be sweet?” It is the same mouth that kisses and screams, and maybe also the same emotional reservoir behind each action. Of course, it’s never so black and white; but each of these poems engages meaningfully and particularly with each situation to uncover the reason behind the reasons.
Another large concern of Registers of Illuminated Villages is the idea of ancestry, heritage, and societal influence. Some such influences are steeped in and informed by historical injustices that give rise to the subtler, everyday violences of misogyny, xenophobia, and cultural intolerance. Other of these influences rise like steam out of the still-steeping waters of childhood, love, and personal trauma. Yes, these poems contain drivers of trucks shouting, “go back to your own country,” and they contain instances of deceased relatives offering dinner party advice. “Variations on A Cemetery in Summer,” a poem meaningfully penned on July, 4, 2004, affirms and questions many forms of cultural and personal heritage; and at one point we are told prophetically that
A flag crinkles the breeze
with its histories.
A country sighs, struggles
to remember to gaze
at its own stories of stars.
Perhaps the message of these ancestral meditations is that an incongruous nation is comprised of many people who don’t know who they are. “Help me, Lord. / There are so many bodies inside this one” says the speaker of “Poetry Recitation at St. Catherine’s School for Girls”; and who among us has not felt equally fractured by the world’s many hands, all trying to form us in different ways? As Faizullah’s speakers come to understand these influences and their effects on selfhood, the question turns inward, and we are encouraged to untangle the ways in which we influence the people around us.
Readers of Registers of Illuminated Villages will benefit from the time spent looking closely at things. Faizullah is an excellent guide through the world around us – the one that exists despite the violences and traumas we have enacted on it and its inhabitants. Like the best poets do, Faizullah teaches us that the world isn’t as easy to understand as a quick glance might reveal, and her work encourages us to look again with steady eyes.
Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, the Adroit Journal, and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.